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Nebraska linebacker Mohamed Barry made the comment off the cuff, as an aside in a discussion about alternate uniforms, but his words nevertheless made an impression on me.

He ended a spiel about wanting someday to wear all-black uniforms by saying, "We're all about the Blackshirt life."

I liked the way it sounded and wondered what "Blackshirt life" meant in the mind of first-year Nebraska defensive coordinator Erik Chinander.

"It's just doing things the right way," he said. "The players know we expect a lot. We expect them to watch film on their own, to practice their asses off whether it's a walk-through, individual drill, or whether it's Thursday or Monday, and then to play their asses off on Saturday."

Of course, Chinander means every Saturday, not just against Ohio State. Nebraska's defense played well enough last week for the Huskers to beat the eighth-ranked Buckeyes, a pleasant development in a season defined largely by struggle, especially on defense. The Blackshirts forced three turnovers, four punts and a turnover on downs, but still allowed 34 points.

Such is life when your offense runs at a rapid pace, giving opposing offenses plenty of opportunities. But, hey, Chinander will quickly tell you he chose this life. He embraces it, even now amid the losing.

Nebraska (2-7, 1-5 Big Ten) enters Saturday's game against Illinois ranked 105th nationally in total defense, allowing 442.8 yards per game, and 101st in points allowed (33.7). The Illini (4-5, 2-4) come off a 55-31 win against Minnesota in which they put up 646 yards.

So, yeah, it could potentially become another tough day at the office for Chinander. His defense is improving — it's forced six turnovers in the past two games combined. The overall effort is virtually always good. But the unit has given up bushels of yards and points on the season.

"Not fun," he said. "It's not good and it falls directly on me. I own that, but it's also the process we're talking about, right?"

He shares something he often tells his Husker defenders.

"It's like you're sitting on the very top of the beach. You see a dog by the water, and he's jumping around and you're like, 'That dog's so dumb, he's jumping around at nothing,'" Chinander said. "But he sees the little flies and little sea gnats and he's jumping after those."

The message?

"I see things that people don't see," Chinander said. "I see improvement. I see where it's going. I see we're this close. It doesn't look that way when you give up a long run, but you're that close. So the kids need to see the process. They need to see what others don't see, what fans don't see, what the media doesn't see, what the world doesn't see.

"I think they're understanding that."

Ohio State's offense confused Nebraska with certain looks, Chinander said. In due time, perhaps by next September, his defenders will be able to handle in-game adjustments much more smoothly because they will better understand the scheme's intricacies. To be sure, sometimes I have to remind myself the players have been in the new staff's systems for less than a year.

In addition, sometimes I have to remind myself that the 2018 Nebraska defense has plenty of solid players, but no surefire NFL Draft picks in the starting lineup. Put it this way: The problem isn't necessarily who the Huskers have on defense at the moment; it's who they don't have.

"We can't attack as much right now just because of personnel and what we've got going on. Which is fine. We'll get there," Chinander said.

Meanwhile, even the coach is in the early stages of "the Blackshirt life." That life extends beyond the playing field, he said. He said there's a right way for players to act in the classroom and in the weight room. There's even a right way to act around female athletes at the training table, he said.

"It's just a culture, the mentality players have to have," he said.

What's more, "If they want to be a Blackshirt, it's got to be a physical deal on the field at all points," he said.

Which explains why Nebraska junior corner Lamar Jackson didn't get his Blackshirt until the Tuesday following a 53-28 win Oct. 20 against Minnesota.

"He's getting a little more physicality to his game," Chinander said. "I'm not going to have a Blackshirt out there who doesn't play physical. It's not going to happen. That's not what Nebraska's about."

Chinander said the defense's physicality was "not close" to where he wanted it when he arrived on campus in December.

"We're halfway up the ladder right now," he said. "We have a long ways to go."

So he clings to signs of progress many of us can't see. It surely helps him maintain sanity, sort of like a restful day on a beach.

Reach the writer at 402-473-7440 or ssipple@journalstar.com. On Twitter @HuskerExtraSip.

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Husker columnist

Steven, a lifelong Nebraskan, newspaper enthusiast and UNL grad, joined the Journal Star in 1990 and has covered NU football since 1995.

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